Quest for the Missing Letters by John H.B. Irving

When my father, Laurence Irving, was carrying out research in 1949 for his biography of his grandfather he made many contacts with Edward Gordon Craig, Ellen Terry’s son. Craig was living in France. He was well-known as an avid document hoarder. His habit was to contemplate his hoard and every now and then annotate in pencil his thoughts on individual items. My father was trying to put together relevant material from which he could assess the true nature of the relationship between H.I. and his leading lady. Surely, he thought, EGC would be the best source. But no; EGC swore that his mother had destroyed all HI’s letters to her after his death in 1905.

‘Henry Irving, The Actor and his World’ was published in 1951. On page 480 the author concluded ‘There remained the possibility of an ordinary liaison – of a grand passion which though it might have titillated the vulgar public, would have rendered ridiculous and hypocritical his lifelong advocacy of his profession.’ For many readers this sentence told them more about the author than the two characters themselves. It was, in fact, a statement of personal piety.

Ten years later Craig, from his final home in Vence in the south of France, sold a batch of twenty intimate letters from Henry Irving to Ellen Terry to a dealer from the North of England, whose identity I have been unable to establish. This dealer then sold them on to the well-known London dealer Ifan Kyrle Fletcher at a considerable profit. At the time Fletcher had an important client in California named Norman Philbrick to whom he had already sold several Henry Irving items. The newly discovered letters became the lead item in Fletcher’s 1961 sale catalogue (no 198). It was titled ‘Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Gordon Craig – A selection of their autograph letters and manuscripts, books by and about them, association copies, plays, programmes, photographs, original drawings, woodcuts, prints and other related material’.

My father and Fletcher knew each other. Their interests overlapped, but they could not be described as friends. Fletcher realised how important the twenty letters would have been to the writing of the H.I. biography. He telephoned my father to tell him that the collection had been sold to Philbrick but the letters were still in London and he was welcome to come to see them at his office before their dispatch to the U.S.A.

The first I heard about this exchange was in February of this year from Jack Reading of The Society For Theatre Research. He described what Fletcher had told him about this encounter. My father was accompanied by his friend Virginia Surtees. After he had studied the letters, he remarked that he wished he could have seen them before the H.I. book had been published. Fletcher told Reading that Virginia, with a twinkle in her eye, said, ‘Laurence – even if you had, you would not have used them!’ I got in touch with Virginia Surtees and asked her about this meeting and what she had said. She could not remember precisely but agreed it could have happened, as described.

Jack Reading carried the story a stage further. In 1967 Norman Philbrick wanted to publish a monograph based on the twenty letters but in order to do so, had to obtain copyright permission from my father who was the legal copyright holder. Reading reported that Philbrick’s publishing plans were thwarted by an injunction imposed by my father. Neither my sister Pamela nor I had any knowledge of such an action. I contacted the firm of London solicitors who had acted on my father’s behalf before he died but their records had no mention of such an injunction.

Norman Philbrick died in 1988. By his will his theatre collections were left to Pomona College at Claremont just to the north of Los Angeles.

1996 saw the formation of “The Irving Society”. At the inaugural meeting suggestions were put forward for future Society activities. One suggestion was for the creation of a computer database of all known original Henry Irving material, which could be accessible to future researchers. I responded to this idea by volunteering to undertake a journey at my own expense to the USA to visit a number of institutions where HI material was held.

On this list, of course, was Pomona College. I received a courteous reply to my letter from the college president, Peter Stanley. He welcomed my visit and suggested I got in touch with Jean Beckner, the Curator of Special Collections at the College’s Honnold Library. I arranged with Ms Beckner to come at the end of May 1997.

My trip started in Washington DC. at the Folger Shakespeare Library next door to the Library of Congress. They were very helpful and I saw more than 200 hundred original HI letters. The next stop was the Harry Ransom Research Centre at the University of Texas at Austin. Here again there was much to read and list. This well endowed institution has been buying at auctions in London and elsewhere for many years. I left Austin for Los Angeles on May 23rd.

Jean Beckner welcomed me to the Honnold Special Collections. They are held in an impressive high ceilinged building in Gothic style with an all round balcony lined with shelving above the book case and tables on the floor below. Jean was very concerned that my visit should prove useful. She showed me the card file system itemising all the Henry Irving material. A preliminary glance through the cards told me that the all important twenty HI/ET letters were not listed.

II mentioned this to Jean and got on with my notes about the considerable quantity of material that was fully recorded. This included the originals of the very early Johnnie Brodribb letters to Mrs Wilkins and to Charles Ford which are printed in full in the third chapter of my father’s biography.

Jean Beckner explained that the Philbrick Collection had come to Pomona unendowed. This meant that cataloguing was incomplete. I was then allowed onto the balcony where all the original Gordon Craig boxes were shelved. It took me a whole day to go through this material but there was still no sign of the missing letters. Before I left, Jean gave me the name and address of the Philbrick family lawyers in Palo Alto. Philbrick had three daughters who today live in California.

Jean did show me the copious files containing all correspondence between Philbrick and Ifan Kyrle Fletcher. There I saw a copy of the 1961 sale catalogue annotated by Philbrick stating that Item ‘A’ , the twenty letters, was now part of his collection. When Philbrick suggested the monograph publication, Fletcher advised on the legal position regarding copyright. He suggested that Philbrick approach my father for his co-operation. My father responded in a letter dated 17.11.67., which I had never seen before. At the time he was helping Roger Manvell with his life of Ellen Terry and he wrote ‘I am glad to say that after studying all the evidence, he (Manvell) comes more or less to the same conclusion about their personal relationship as I did.’

Philbrick and Fletcher were perplexed by this letter. It was no legal injunction, indeed the whole matter of the twenty letters was totally ignored. It seemed like a loss of memory, which Fletcher suggested might have resulted from a recent stroke suffered by my father. Philbrick was a polite and diffident man. He never contacted my father again. Fletcher died and his wife Constance carried on the business. Subsequently she died. My father died in 1988.

So what has happened to the twenty letters? The mystery remains. I have written to the Philbrick lawyers who answered that they have no knowledge which will help me. They said they would ask the family. After I left Pomona, Jean Beckner had a telephone call from one of the Philbrick daughters concerning another matter and used the opportunity to outline our search for the missing letters. The daughter’s response was to suggest getting in touch with one of her two sisters. Jean passed this information to me. I have written to this lady, but so far have received no reply.

I have heard again from the lawyer, who is renewing his approach to the daughter in question. He felt sure that Norman Philbrick would have wanted his collection made available for scholastic purposes. It all looks very encouraging. Watch for further developments to appear in First Knight.

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